A plugged-up sink, shower, or tub drain sends most people running for either a bottle of caustic drain cleaner or a plumber’s phone number. But wait. Unclogging a drain could well be a job you can do yourself successfully without caustic chemicals or a big bill.
You have several options, each one outlined below. It makes sense to start with the easiest, most likely solution. Then, if that doesn’t work, move to the next option.
Assess the situation
Turn on taps to allow water down other drains in the house. If everything else is flowing freely, you can be fairly certain you have a localized clog—and probably near that clogged drain’s opening.
If this is involving other drains, you could have a bigger problem that may well require a professional. Assuming it’s only one drain, let’s move on.
1. Boiling water
It makes sense to start with the easiest, cheapest option: Get a large pot and boil up as much water as it will hold*. Now carefully and slowly, pour boiling water down the drain in two to three stages so that the hot water can work for a few minutes in between each pour. This is the easiest and quickest way to unclog a drain if it works, which usually it does with a satisfying swoosh.
*Or if you are dealing with a very old, antique porcelain sink and/or PVC pipes, in which case there’s a slight chance that boiling water could cause damage. fill the pot with your hottest tap water.
Still not running freely? Let’s move to the next option.
2. Blue Dawn plus boiling water
Pour 1/2 cup of Blue Dawn detergent (no substitutes for best result) into the drain. For tough clogs, use a full cup.
While that sits, bring a half pot of water (about 4 cups) to boil. Pour this directly into the drain very slowly but steadily to avoid getting burned by splashing water. Allow to sit for 10 – 15 minutes, then run water down the drain to check how freely water flows through.
If the clog remains or seems to be clearing, but the drain is still slow-running, repeat the boiling water step above until the drain runs free.
3. Baking soda, vinegar plus boiling water
Measure out 1/3 cup baking soda and get as much of it down the drain as you can. Follow with 1/3 cup white vinegar. It will fizz up and make quite a show. Allow it to sit for at least an hour, or overnight if at all possible. In the morning, follow with one or two quarts boiling water.
You will be tempted to overdo it with the baking soda and vinegar assuming that if a small amount is good, ore it better. Learn here why that might be a bad idea.
4. Reach in
Remove the strainer that is part of the drain plug, then reach into the drain with your fingers (latex gloves would be a good idea here) and pull out any solids. As gross as this might be, it is often all that’s needed to clear a slow-moving or clogged drain.
5. Zip it
This simple tool is flexible enough to allow you to push it down into the turns of the drain. It has teeth along each side that once you’re in and you twist it, you’ll be able to pull out all manner of drain offenders. Keep working at it, until you pull out as much as you can. Now run the hot water and that should clear things up nicely.
The Zip-it can be used in a sink drain with or without a pop-up, because it is thin enough to fit in the drain even with a pop-up in place.
This handy dandy tool is worth its weight in gold. It’s great to clear drains, but also works well to maintain drains before they get clogged.
Fast and easy, no expensive plumber required. Made in the USA.
6. Wet-dry vacuum
If you have a wet-dry vacuum, it just might help you to clear the drain without having to get your hands dirty. First, set it to “wet” so it vacuums liquids. Cover or close the drain’s vent. Make the tightest seal you can with the hose end of the vacuum over the drain.
Get creative with duct tape or the like. With the vacuum set to its most powerful setting, it can be powerful enough to pull that clog right out of the drain. Don’t forget to clean the vacuum tank!
While I offer no guarantees because not all clogged drains are created equal, attempting to clear a clogged drain yourself first—before spending money or just living with it until you have a major disaster—is certainly worth a shot. The worst that can happen is that you will still have a clogged drain.
I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve successfully cleared a stubborn clogged drain—especially in a bathroom sink or shower—by first using my trusty Zip-It, followed by the Blue Dawn and boiling water trick. Seriously awesome!
First published: 1-29-19; Updated 3-14-22
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